Refugee Council of Australia
Family in front of house

The home stretch: Challenges and alternatives in sustainable housing for refugees and people seeking asylum


The primary research question for RCOA’s housing project was: What works in supporting people seeking asylum and people from refugee backgrounds to find sustainable housing in Australia?

The project commenced in July 2013. A review of existing research on the housing needs of refugees and people seeking asylum and of information relating to housing challenges gathered by RCOA through community consultations and local networks was conducted and published on RCOA’s website in September 2013.

Six face-to-face consultations were conducted with people seeking asylum living in the community on bridging visas in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney, to gain an understanding of the specific housing challenges faced by people seeking asylum on short-term visas. Targeted interviews and discussions were conducted with asylum seeker support agencies, refugee settlement services, refugee community organisations and specialist housing organisations across Australia to learn more about how the housing challenges faced by humanitarian entrants are being tackled by the agencies which attempt to support them. Additional interviews were conducted with selected organisations and community groups to develop more detailed case studies of successful and innovative approaches to assisting people seeking asylum and people from refugee backgrounds to secure affordable, appropriate and sustainable housing.

In total, representatives from 47 organisations and community groups from all states and territories of Australia and from eight different ethnic communities (Afghan Hazara, Iranian, Iraqi, Karen, Rohingya, Somali, Sri Lankan Tamil and Sudanese) took part in the consultation process.

Literature review

While there is a growing body of research focused on the challenges faced by refugees with permanent residency in finding sustainable housing in Australia, there is little information about the particular issues faced by people seeking asylum on short-term bridging visas or the strategies that are effective in assisting refugees and people seeking asylum to find secure and affordable homes in Australia. The following is an overview of existing literature (for a more complete overview, see RCOA’s literature review).

Homelessness and housing affordability in Australia

Research has clearly shown that housing plays a critical role in the health and wellbeing of individual Australians (see list at end of this page). The availability of affordable, sustainable and appropriate housing is known to underpin good health and the social, educational and economic participation of individuals. In its 2013 Community Sector Survey, the Australian Council of Social Services found that housing availability and affordability were nominated as the highest priorities in need of attention by people living in poverty and by the services which support them.

At the same time, housing and homelessness services were more likely than any other form of social service to be unable to meet demand among their own client group. This survey found that a large majority (77%) of clients seeking help with housing rely on income support payments alone. While housing was identified as a priority by service providers and the people experiencing disadvantage, over 62% of service providers surveyed noted increased waiting times for services over the previous 12 months and a 16% turn-away rate.

The Rental Affordability Snapshot undertaken by Anglicare Australia (2013)also provides compelling evidence that low incomes such as government payments and the minimum wage are insufficient to cover costs in the current Australian private rental market. Key findings from this national study included:

  • Single people are seriously disadvantaged in the housing market, with less than 1% of listed properties rated as affordable;
  • Couples fare marginally better, with around 2% of listings rated as affordable, except where the couple household also has children and is on a government payment (0.9%);
  • Regional areas are too expensive for people living on a government payment (0.1%-5.8% of listed properties considered affordable) and only marginally less expensive for single people living on a minimum wage (4.0-6.3%);
  • The cities are inaccessible to anyone living on a low income with all household types being able to access less than 1% of listed properties, except a couple with children on the minimum wage for whom 4.1% of the listed properties were deemed affordable; and
  • For single people on the Newstart allowance, only 2 out of 40,559 properties – less than 0.1% of the available rentals in metropolitan areas – were considered affordable.

In relation to homelessness, an average of 105,000 Australians were identified as being homeless in the 2011 Censusand recent data indicates that young people under 25 are in the majority of those experiencing homelessness In terms of who is considered homeless, Chamberlain and Mackenzie (1998) provide a useful three-tier definition of homelessness:

  • Primary homelessness: Someone who is without traditional or acceptable accommodation and has taken to ‘sleeping rough’, a term that denotes living on the street;
  • Secondary homelessness: Someone who moves around a lot or ‘couch surfs’, temporarily staying with relatives or friends or in emergency accommodation; and
  • Tertiary homelessness: Someone who shares space in a private boarding house, in which minimal housing standards are not met. People often share a communal bathroom or kitchen and live without the certainty of a lease arrangement.

In its 2008 White Paper on Homelessness and its more recent research on a National Quality Framework for the Provision of Services to People who are Homeless or at Risk (2010), the Australian Government recognises that people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness are “one of the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in our community”, stating that homelessness removes stability and connection in people’s lives and that the impact of “even brief periods of homelessness can be long-lasting”. It also notes that children are particularly vulnerable to the traumatic effects of homelessness, being “more likely to experience emotional and behavioural problems such as distress, depression, anger and aggression”.

In relation to addressing broader housing and homelessness issues, Anglicare Australia’s Rental Affordability Snapshot (2013) recommends that the Australian Government fundamentally reform the housing sector, citing once-in-a-generation developments in other social policy areas like the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the Gonski educational reforms. Anglicare’s recommendations for housing reform include: an increase in Commonwealth Rent Assistance; an increase in the basic level of social security payments; a review of tax treatment in the housing sector (e.g. negative gearing); and directing the National Rental Affordability Scheme investment toward the lower end of the property market. In another report exploring the experience of marginal rental housing in Australia, Goodman et al. (2013:14) recommend the creation of national minimum standards for any type of marginal rental housing in Australia. While their recommendations are not specific to people seeking asylum or people from refugee backgrounds, the need for minimal national standards for any and all types of marginal housing would have a profound impact on these populations.


Anglicare Australia (2013) Australia Rental Affordability Snapshot, Canberra.
J. Couch, ‘A New Way Home: Refugee Young People and Homelessness in Australia’ (2011) 2 Journal of Social Inclusion.
Centre for Multicultural Youth, Finding Home in Victoria (26 February 2011).
James Forrest, Kerstin Hermes, Ron Johnston, and Michael Poulsen, ‘The Housing Resettlement Experience of Refugee Immigrants to Australia’ (2013) 26 Journal of Refugee Studies 187.
N. Liddy, S Sanders, and C Coleman, Australia’s Hidden Homeless: Community-Based Options for Asylum Homelessness (Hotham Mission Asylum Seeker Project, 2010).
S.E. Khoo, P McDonald, J Temple, and B Edgar, (Council Unit, Department of Treasury, 2013).

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